Sunday, October 14, 2012

Exploring Influences: John Abercrombie's "Within a Song"

Within A Song ECM 2254
I first saw the guitarist John Abercrombie many years ago as with the super group Dreams.  Even then he gravitated toward playing with people who challenged the norm, people like drummer Billy Cobham, the trumpet and saxophone duo,  the Brecker Brothers and bassist Will Lee,  As a fledgling guitar player myself , I took a keen interest in his development, a guitar player’s guitar player. His debut album as a leader came in 1974, with his presciently titled fusion album Timeless,  this time with keyboard wizard Jan Hammer and drumming phenon Jack DeJohnette. Clearly Abercrombie was developing as a master musician who was following his own muse.
Timeless ECM 
His then avant-garde work with his group Circle, with drummer DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland, was on the forefront of progressive jazz in the nineteen seventies. All along the way, this restless soul continued his quest to challenge convention, collaborating with the very best of his generation, often times with musicians slightly outside the mainstream including  the multi-reedist John Surman, the pianist Richie Bierach, the eclectic trumpeter Kenny Wheller and fellow guitarist Ralph Towner. Abercrombie’s musical adventure has crossed into a myriad of musical styles with the one common thread running through all of them being the unique sound of John’s guitar.

Musically you might never know what to expect next from John, but even blindfolded, as the drummer Billy Drummond recently said in Downbeat, you will always know who is playing from the first note because of John’s signature sound.

Abercrombie’s latest ECM recording, Within A Song, features a series of songs that have been influential to guitarist’s development. For this outing John has again surrounded himself with some of the  finest musicians currently working today, Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone, Drew Gress on double bass and Joey Baron on drums. 

The opening, “Where Are You,“ first came to the guitarist’s attention when he heard Sonny Rollin’s seminal album The Bridge from 1962.  Guitarists often find their voice in listening to the work of other instrumentalists, not necessarily always other guitarists, but clearly hearing Jim Hall’s guitar became an epiphany of sorts to the young Abercrombie.  John and tenorist Lovano take on the roles of Hall and Rollins from the original album, approaching the tune with the same moving sensitivity. Abercrombie pays homage to Hall’s lush, liquid sound here. Delicate comps follow Lovano’s lead. Lovano’s tenor is rich and warm with almost Getzian inflections. Joe is a master of precise intonation, even when playing cascades of notes adagietto. Drummer Baron’s shimmering cymbal work sets a dreamy scene evocative of Ben Riley’s work on the original. The song lingers in your memory long after it ends.

“Easy Reader” is an slow Abercrombie waltz and according to the notes is somehow influenced by the picture “Easy Rider.”  With Lovano and Abrercrombie stating a series of descending lines followed by a series of rapidly ascending lines in tandem, the song has a formal almost classical sensibility. The guitarist is given ample room to develop his rambling harmonic explorations with bassist Drew Gress reading his twists and turns telepathically. Lovano’s tenor soars softly with Abercrombie’s muted guitar comping and countering in a contrapuntal conversation.  Baron’s rolling toms accentuate his flawless cymbal work toward the coda.

The title song of the album is a take off of another song from Rollin’s The Bridge , “Without a Song.” On this album it is penned by Abercrombie as “Within a Song/Without a Song,” it is the most swinging song of the album. Gress’s plucky bass is buoyant and vascular, keeping the pulse invigorating. Baron keeps the most impeccable of time on his ride cymbal spicing the music with occasional timely rolls and well placed bombs. The song features a marvelous dual front line of Abercrombie and Lovano first stating the melody line in precise tandem and then in a stuttered call and response. Lovano is pure elegance on his horn. With an unflappable sense of time, Lovano navigates the chicane with a grace that is marvelously inventive. Abercrombie’s guitar meanders around the melody searching, probing the harmonic edges without going too far astray. After almost seven minutes the group touches on the last few bars of the original song, bringing it all back to place where it came from..

For many of us, the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue was an inescapable influence. Abercrombie chooses a deeply ruminative take on “Flamenco Sketches” from that album. He seems at his finest when he is left some room to be able to explore the depths of a song, uncovering new possibilities in succinct flurries, like short detours from a road well traveled. All the while the atmosphere of the song is retained and in some ways enhanced by the military-like drum cadence. The deep plucky bass of Gress is a tip of the hat to Paul Chambers fine work on the original. Lovano’s saxophone is amazingly versatile with a collection of flutters, moans, slurs and squeals all perfectly controlled and purposefully employed. The group excels at this marvelous homage to the original.

“Nick of Time” is a jagged melody of John’s that is a reminiscent of the exploratory jazz of the sixties and seventies, when musicians were into testing the boundaries of the musical form. The musicians all navigate through the maze in with like-minded determination, maintaining a tonal quality and suppleness that is not obviously reliant on the melodic form but nonetheless creates a coherent musical statement.

“Blues Connotation” is from the Ornette Coleman songbook. Originally recorded by the alto saxophonist on his This Is Our Music. This free form jaunt loosely plays with the blues form in a playful and open way. Lovano’s slightly screechy sound plays into the Coleman legacy. John’s guitar solo is suitably wandering. Joey Baron’s drum solo is light, loose and jagged in keeping with the unfettered Billy Higgins approach to Ornette’s music.

The most moving song on the album is from John Coltrane’s 1964 release Crescent, titled “Wise One”. Abercrombie makes a beautiful entrance with his signature, tightly sequenced guitar voicing. Mr. Lovano’s exquisitely plaintive sound, while Coltrane-esque, is clearly of one of his own making, yearning and bordering on religious in its reverence. John’s comp work is the most Hall-like on the album. His solo is a tour de force of sensitivity and inventiveness as he demonstrates his unique sense of harmony. Baron’s rolling toms are subtly omnipresent and his dynamics are always tasteful. Gress’s is subtly grounding but never overpowering. Lovano returns to solo in his own inimitably tasteful way, cascading notes in cadenzas of seemingly endless ideas. Multi tonal ideas that follow their own unpredictable path but always leading to a logical conclusion.

For anyone growing up in John’s era, pianist Bill Evans was an inevitable influence. Here John choose’s  the minor blues “Interplay” from the 1962 Evans/Hall collaboration of the same name. Bassist Drew Gress gets to do a beautiful walking blues line that sets the tone.  Lovano and Abercrombie show that they are no stranger to tasty improvisations over blues changes no matter how abstract the blues form is buried in the song..

The closing song was a favorite of Abercrombie’s from his days of watching the Art Farmer-Jim Hall Quartet titled “Sometime Ago.” Abercrombie starts with an obliquely rambling introductory solo before going into the memorable melody head on. Lovano brings his own sense of warmth to the song with a floating, poignantly played solo. He has a wonderful way of entering a song with smooth but forceful presence that commands you attention. When Abercrombie returns he climbs the tune with an ascending solo line that dances around the melody. Baron accents the guitarist’s turns with prescient changes of his own as the tune winds down we are treated to a beautifully controlled microtonal embellishment by the master saxophonist to end this poignant but uplifting piece.

With some of tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano’s most emotional playing to date and ensemble work of the highest order,  John Abercrombie’s Within A Song is a strong addition to the guitarist’s discography, once again validating John’s ability to continue to create timely music of extraordinary beauty. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the update on Abercrombie. He's a favorite!